Once upon a time, being called a “nerd” or “geek” was the epitome of an insult. The image of thick glasses and pocket protectors held fast in pop culture for many years. Admitting to being a fan of shows like Star Trek or playing Dungeons and Dragons opened oneself up to ridicule and shunning. But something happened along the way, turning the geek label into something cool and mainstream. From the T-shirts that proclaim one’s pride at being a mathlete, dork, gamer, or Trekkie (or is it Trekker?) to the proliferation of what was once considered “alternative” pop culture that ranges anywhere from Tolkien to The Avengers, suddenly, appearing smart is the new way to be cool. The nerds, it seems, have finally got their revenge.
So, what happened in order to change this perception? A big aspect has been the rise of comic conventions, or comic-cons. What grew from a small niche of avid comic book collectors in the 1960s, who met to trade and sell their prized possessions, has grown into a global phenomenon. The biggest commercial comic-con franchise is Comic-Con International, which began in San Diego and now boasts events in major cities across the globe. There are also other smaller, regional franchises, but the format of comic conventions is more or less the same. They are multi-day events with a primary focus on comic books and comic book culture, but have expanded to include a wide spectrum of science fiction and fantasy, including Japanese manga, cult movies such as Back to the Future and Ghostbusters, and television shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Attendees can meet creators, experts, actors, and each other. Cosplay (short for costume play?dressing up as a fictional character) is a large part of the fun for fans, but not compulsory. Other activities include photo ops, autograph signings, lots of opportunities to purchase merchandise from vendors, panel discussions and workshops.
The cynics might view the popularity of these conventions as using the geek culture as just a way for entertainment companies to make money, but that is dismissing the impact that a movement, once relegated to the periphery, has had on mainstream popular culture. No one seems to know how or why “alternative culture” has taken off to this extent. Perhaps it gradually grew out of the popularity of Star Wars or the recent reboots of the Marvel superhero films. Television shows like The IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory have certainly helped to cement this change in mindset. Even the academic discipline of critical theory is starting to recognize and analyze its effects in the postmodern era. But whatever the reason, the socially awkward high-schoolers have grown up, got jobs, and moved from their parents? basements. So-called alpha nerds such as Bill Gates have proven that the geeks can certainly become the movers and shakers of the world. The once-awkward teenagers now, as adults, have the spending power to indulge themselves on what they enjoyed when they were young.
My personal experience with geek culture is relatively recent. Oh sure, as a kid I saw the three original Star Wars films, and during my 20s I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with a group of university friends in their basement suite, but science fiction as a whole never really interested me. I’ve also not been one to be obsessed with any sort of pop culture. That began to change when I met the guy who is now my husband. He is a Brit who grew up with Doctor Who and has always considered himself a dyed-in-the-wool Whovian. My first impressions of him noticed that his shelves contained lots of Terry Pratchett books and he had a talent for reciting all the snappy catchphrases from Red Dwarf to me. His love of computers went all the way back to the Sinclair Spectrum and the Amstrad, and, when I met him, he was studying computer science in university. He enjoyed a pop culture world that I wasn’t familiar with, but wasn’t a deal-breaker by any means. I wasn’t about to call off our wedding because I thought he liked daleks more than me. But I figured I’d better learn and understand a little about his passions if I was going to be spending a lot of time with him.
It turns out that, after making an effort to understand this world, I really didn’t mind it. I learned to like Red Dwarf and I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Discworld novels. When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, I was pregnant and watched the regeneration of the ninth doctor while in the hospital’s maternity ward. I had to admit to myself that the geek culture wasn’t half bad.
Now I consider myself a reluctant “Geek Mom”. I am the parent of a boy who is very much like his dad. They adore watching Doctor Who together and they enjoy discussing the show’s plot lines and characters. My son plays Minecraft and engages in toy lightsaber battles with his friends. He absorbs anything Star Wars and can read comic books for hours (nowadays the term “graphic novels” is used more frequently than “comic books”, probably as a way to justify that reading comics is more socially acceptable if they are called something a bit more grown up). My foray into the world of geekdom is definitely deepening.
This past weekend, my family attended the Calgary Expo, Calgary’s comic and entertainment convention. The Calgary Expo has gone from just a small gathering of fans to the second-largest fan convention in Canada, taking most of the Calgary Stampede grounds. In fact, the Calgary Expo is the most-attended annual event after the Calgary Stampede. According to the Calgary Herald, Expo officials pegged this year’s attendance at 103,500, which was just 500 shy of 2015’s record-breaking, 10th anniversary event.
Our goal for our Saturday out was to just take in the atmosphere and find out what it was all about. We didn’t cosplay, although we all wore Doctor Who t-shirts. After all, we were all newbies at this. We didn’t really know what to expect.
The experience was, on the whole, pretty overwhelming. We spent most of the day wandering around the vendor halls and people-watching. We admired the work?and money?that the cosplayers put into their costumes. We didn’t take in any of the panel discussions, but we enjoyed watching the outdoor Quidditch demonstration. (Yes, the game of Quidditch has been lifted from the fictional world of Harry Potter and become an actual, organized game, complete with teams and tournaments.) We tried our hand at some of the classic arcade games in the gaming area. We didn’t wait in line for either the celebrity guests? autographs (the lines were long and you had to pay) or the photo ops with a celebrity (the lines were even longer, and we didn’t feel the cost of 60 to 100-plus dollars was worth it). By mid-afternoon, we were getting tired and cranky from pushing our way through the crowds, so we cut our day short sooner than we thought.
Our overall impression of our first comic convention was that the experience is kind of like Disneyland without the rides. There is lots of sensory overload and it seems like it is all too easy to part with a big wad of cash on stuff you later wonder why you thought it was a good idea purchase in the first place. However, more importantly, I started to get a real insight and appreciation for the whole geek culture. I assumed that this event would attract a certain, stereotypical sort of person but I was proved wrong. There were people there from every culture, age group and demographic out enjoying the day. Some people’s costumes were professionally made, some were just cobbled together out of items found around the house, and just as many were not dressed up at all. Despite the crowds, the vendors manning the tables were chatty, people were very polite if they bumped and jostled each other in the crowded arena, and the cosplayers were relishing the attention when they were asked for their photographs to be taken.
This, I believe, is why the geek culture has been accepted so readily and eagerly into the mainstream. It’s not about who can be the most devoted fan of a particular genre or cultural product. It’s about admitting to ourselves?and giving ourselves permission?to let the realm of fantasy and the domain of superheroes come to the forefront of our selves, even if It’s just for a short time. It’s a departure from the mundane aspects of everyday life, where we can allow ourselves to dream and our inner child come out to play.
Perhaps the whole geek culture will be just another pop culture fad and the popularly of comic conventions will eventually wane. However, I’m willing to bet that this won’t be the case. I’m judging from the fact that Star Wars and Star Trek are still as popular as ever, and Doctor Who has celebrated its 50th anniversary. I think now that people have allowed themselves to let their “normal” guards down just a little to experience a bit of the extraordinary, it will be impossible to go back to the life society knew before comic cons.
As for me, my husband will always like Doctor Who, and I think my son will always have a soft spot for Star Wars. I have become secretly proud of being labeled a Geek Mom, but I am not sure how far I will live up to that label. I wish I had more time to explore this side of myself, such as allowing my son to teach me to play Minecraft. But I must say discovering this aspect of my personality has been a pleasant surprise. I’m already looking forward to the Calgary Expo next year.
Carla is a Calgary writer whose guilty pleasure is reading magazines. She has a stack beside her bed that she will get around to tackling?eventually.